The United Nation’s machinery for developing and implementing human rights policy has been assembled over the course of several decades. Although various organs and agencies of the UN system have been involved in promoting and protecting human rights, the core activities remain centered on two bodies:
- the Commission of Human Rights (1946-2005) and its successor, the UN Human Rights Council (2006-present).
- the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights, a post UN member states agreed to establish in 1993.
At a fundamental level human rights policy extends from international law. There are now nine core international human rights treaties, including the two bedrock Covenants that translate the Universal Declaration of Human Rights into legally binding form and provide an overall framework for human rights.
Each of the treaties has at least one committee of independent experts charged to monitor compliance, known generically as “treaty bodies.” All of the core human rights treaties were produced through processes that centrally involved the Commission on Human Rights (or the Council, after 2005). Over the years, the Commission and its successor Council have also established a number of “special procedures” whereby individual experts and working groups are mandated to monitor and respond to serious human rights problems related to specific issues or specific countries. Additionally, in 2007 the Human Rights Council introduced a process of Universal Periodic Review (UPR), whereby the Council considers the human rights performance of all UN member states, on a rotational basis, through peer review.
The work of the UN Human Rights Council, the treaty bodies charged to monitor and implement the core human rights treaties, the special procedures, and the UPR are all supported by the Office of the UN High Commissioner of Human Rights.
Non-governmental organizations (NGOs) are not full partners in the work of the UN, but they do have access to UN bodies and influence their workings. Human rights NGOs promote existing international human rights norms and legal standards and–as recounted across this website–at times they have been instrumental in developing such standards. In addition to such advocacy work, NGOs may informally monitor implementation of the standards and provide reliable information about compliance. They seek to impact policy and practice at the national and international level, calling attention to patterns of gross human rights violations, requesting effective remedy, and making specific policy recommendations for states and international organizations.
Formally and informally, NGOs interact with governments and intergovernmental organizations about human rights policy and practice in various ways. Many have consultative status at the UN through its Economic and Social Council which allows them greater, though still limited, access to UN deliberations. Margo Picken describes the activities of Amnesty International’s UN office during the 1970s, its early years. Over many years, human rights groups have prepared and circulated commentary on items before the Council (and its predecessor, the Commission), and they have regularly made use of confidential procedures to call UN attention to individuals who have been victimized as part of a consistent patterns of gross human rights violations. Since 2008, they have also participated in the UPR process, regularly submitted reports as stakeholder contributions to the review of countries under consideration.
For more information:
Margo Picken describes the activities of the Amnesty International UN’s office in its early years in her narrative, “Dynamics between Human Rights Organizations and UN Bodies.”
International Standards — Treaties and Other Human Rights Instruments
- UN Treaty Collection. Comprehensive list of global human rights treaties.
- “Core International Human Rights Instruments.” Information provided by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
- “Universal Human Rights Instruments.” Information provided by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
UN Implementation Mechanisms for International Human Rights Standards
- “UN Human Rights Council.” Information provided by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
- “Universal Periodic Review Process.” Information provided by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
- “Special Procedures of the Human Rights Council.” Information provided by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR). (Note: includes rapporteurs and thematic mechanisms.)
- Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. “Our Work in the Field.“
- Information on independent treaty bodies charged to monitor implementation of various human rights treaties, provided by the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR).
Reports and Policy Analysis by NGOs, IGOs, Policy Centers and Governments
- International Human Rights Service (IHRS). “A Simple Guide to the Treaty Body System.” 2010
- Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights. “Strengthening the UN Human Rights Treaty Body System.” June 2012.
- Amnesty International, “Strengthening the United Nations Treaty Bodies: A preliminary response from non-governmental organizations.” July 2012.
- Universal Human Rights Group, “The Outcome of the General Assembly’s Treaty Body Strengthening Process: An Important Milestone on a Longer Journey,” authored by Cristen Broecker and Michael O’Flaherty, 2014
- Universal Human Rights Group, website page Human rights institutions, mechanisms and processes, updated regularly.
- Universal Human Rights Group, “Special Procedures: Determinants of Influence,” authored by Ted Piccone and Marc Limon,2014.
- Clark, Ann Marie. Diplomacy of Conscience: Amnesty International and Changing Human Rights Norms. Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 2001.
- Farer, Tom J. “The United Nations and Human Rights: More Than a Whimper, Less Than a Roar,” Human Rights Quarterly, Vol. 9, No 4 (Fall 1987): 550-586.
- Hampson, Francoise. “An Overview of the Reform of the UN Human Rights Machinery,” Human Rights Law Review, Vol 7, No 1 (2007): 7-27.
- Redondo, Elvira. “The Universal Periodic Review of the UN Human Rights Council: An Assessment of the First Session,” Chinese Journal of International Law, Vol 7, Issue 3 (2008): 721-734.
Advocacy Groups and Training Tools
- International Service for Human Rights (ISHR), monthly Human Rights Monitor provides regular updates on issues and developments related to the UN human rights machinery. The ISHR website also provides information on efforts to strengthen the system of human rights protection.
- Universal Periodic Review Info (Note: “UPR Info” is a Swiss-registered non-governmental organization providing information about the UPR process to encourage civil society participation)
- International Rehabilitation Council for Torture Victims and Human Rights House. “A Practical Guide to the Universal Periodic Review: How NGOs Can Influence the UPR Process.” November, 2011.
- Hannum, Hurst. Guide to International Human Rights Practice, 4th ed. Leiden: Hotei Publishing, 2004.
- Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. “Human Rights Council Complaint Mechanism.”
- Amnesty International, webpage “What we do: United Nations,” updated periodically.
Case Studies and Examples
- Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights. “Contributions and participation of ‘other stakeholders’ in the UPR” (Note: All of the large international human rights organizations participate in the UPR process, sometimes in collaboration with local NGOs, sometimes in collaboration with each other, and sometimes on their own. Several human rights organizations dedicate website space to presentation of UPR submissions. See for example, Human Rights Watch and Federation International des Droits de l’Homme. Also see Amnesty International; International Commission of Jurists and Human Rights First.)
- Complete list of reports by UN Human Rights Special Rapporteurs (Note: including, for example, 2012 reports by rapporteurs on safe water and sanitation; rights of indigenous peoples, trafficking in persons; violence against women.)
Multimedia Sources, including Film
- United Nations Human Rights Council. “United Nations Web TV.” Webcast database.
- United Nations Human Rights Council. “UN Special Procedures (Joint Statement on Syria), 19th Special Session.” June, 2012.